St. George , patron saint of England is celebrated on 23rd April. He seems a strange choice for English folk being of Syrian origin and born of a Greek father and a Syrian mother. He was a Roman soldier and was martyred for his Christianity in 303 AD at a time in the Roman world when Christians were being viciously persecuted. It was much later, in the medieval period, that he became a much loved figure of romance, rescuing princesses and fighting dragons, an archetypal Arthurian chivalric knight in fact.
He featured as one of Jacobus de Voragine’s most popular Golden Legends, compiled around 1260 AD and a ”best seller” second only to the Bible as printed by Caxton in 1483. As for the dragons , it was the great Argentinean writer Jorge Louis Borges who noted that most cultures created stories about dragons and monsters for their heroes to slay. He believed that psychologically , socially and creatively we all need dragons to fight and consequently we all need dragon slayers to fight our battles for us . The reasons that a civilisation or individual chooses one monster or hero over another can reveal much about the character of that culture or person.
George can be seen in action during the folk dramas known as mummers’ plays which take place across Britain, usually at Christmas, but sometimes at Easter, and are very loosely based on the legend of St. George.
The plays were originally mimed , hence mummers, and all the players were in disguise and hence known as Guisers. The main characters usually included, in addition to St. George, a Captain Slasher, the King of Egypt, a Turkish knight, a doctor and several soldiers who challenge St George and come to sticky ends only to be revived by the doctor! The meaning of all this is just a bit hazey but seems to imply the death of the old year and the need to encourage the resurgence of the young and vigorous new year. Links here to St. George’s commemoration date on 23rd April when the new growth is bursting though in the countryside and we see all sorts of green-man type ceremonies taking place, England’s green and pleasant land says thank you to its patron saint for returning the flowers and the crops.
So George our hero is a quintessential Arthurian romantic knight chivalrous but tough with connotations of ancient vegetation gods who fight off the dark days of winter to help the resurgent green men to flourish?
Does this also explain our dragons ? There is a very common mythological motif of the serpent or dragon who guards a spring or some other desirable object and thus prevents access to it. Ancient texts of India, Greece and Scandinavia, speak of the thunder-gods whose thunderstorms released torrents of water to feed the parched land, having struggled with the monsters that blocked the flows. We can read of Zeus and Typhaon the hundred headed serpent , recounted by Hesiod in his Theogeny , or Apollo killing the python at Delphi to release the spring waters, Thor wounding the Mithgard serpent and later Hercules taking on the Hydra as one of his herculean tasks.
In Lithuania Perkunas’ first spring thunderclap is said to ‘unlock the earth’ from its frozen winter state whilst in ancient Greece the Hydra’s heads were said to be prolific water springs that kept bursting forth and flooding the land until Hercules tamed the flows.
Germanic and Celtic heroes also slay the dragons , Sigurd wins the fair Brynhild by rescuing her from a dragon , Finn MacCool fights many serpent-like monsters rather like Hercules, but it is the dragons themselves that loom largest in the Celtic tales. The Arthurian legend that gives us George’s romantic image also provides us with the most famous dragon of the British isles, the red dragon Symbol of Wales. Early in the legend of Arthur we meet Merlin as just a boy, albeit a very talented boy, he informs Vortigern of the reason for his persistently collapsing castle , two dragons are fighting deep below. The symbolic incarnation of the Anglo-Saxon v Ancient British conflict, a white dragon and a red one. The red dragon has henceforward became the symbol of Wales being paraded proudly on their flag.
In dark- age Briton therefore we meet Anglo- Saxon heroes who slayed dragons, the heraldic animals of the occupied Celtic British people with whom they were in conflict for many centuries.
Perhaps the most renowned of Anglo-Saxon heroes is Beowulf who defeated Grendel and thereby became leader of his people , in his dotage after many years of heroic daring do, Beowulf meets the fire breathing dragon and defeats it as his final act of heroism. The epic poem Beowulf gives us an insight into the hero culture of the Germanic tribes, this is an exert from Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation from Anglo-Saxon.
For fifty years I ruled this nation . No King of any neighbouring clan would dare face me with troops, none had the power to intimidate me. I took what came , cared for and stood by things in my keeping, never fermented quarrels, never swore to a lie. All this consoles me doomed as I am and sickening for death, because of my right ways.
Beowulf has slain the dragon but is himself dying from his wounds, he has ruled his people for fifty years and they have been free of conflict because his reputation as a hero has kept other contenders at bay. Now he is dying and his people will face war and hardship once again. The reality of life for the northern early medieval tribes was brutally simple, tribes without a notorious warrior king were open to attack. The winning of a heroic reputation by a tribal leader would protect their people , whilst the hero lived none would quarrel but death would bring eager vultures to pick the bones of the bereft tribe.
Heroes needed to fight dragons both to release needed resources but also to build a reputation that would act as an intangible force , a marketing brand of notoriety to keep likely attackers from trying their luck.
So why St. George?
He was elevated to patron saint status by Edward the Third (1312-1377) , a seriously warmongering monarch of the Plantagenet line. St. George had become legendary as a protector of soldiers during the crusades both because of his career as a soldier himself and also because of his remarkably courageous martyrdom . As a rallying cry during the 100 years war against France (instigated by Edward) , known to us best in Shakespeares’ Henry the 5th, ……. cry God for Harry, England and St. George, had both reputation and sanctity on its side. George as a patron saint is free of trappings , he is not local like St Thomas a Becket or linked to any profession or English legend so in effect had no axe to grind. George’s dragon fighting depictions can be transposed by medieval minds to form the earthly manifestation of the archangel St. Michael ,also often depicted fighting a dragon, making him a doubly valorous and protective symbol.
England certainly needed a hero , notwithstanding a hundred years of war with France it also had to contend with the appearance of the black plague in 1348 , any superhuman intercession with the angels and God would be most welcome at the time. George’s grim beginnings as a patron saint perhaps explain why we have no party or day off work to celebrate him. The 23rd of April is allegedly the date of his martyrdom ,which in itself was a pretty grim affair and no pretence for a party, but poor old George also has the reformation , the seesawing from Protestant to Catholic of the Tudor dynasty, plus good old Oliver Cromwell, to contend with. All these historica party- poopers combined to put the muckers on any excuse for a good old knees-up for the English.
Still , fighting dragons, as Borges intimated can be an individual affair so each of us can feel free to slay our own personal dragons on St. Georges day just tilt at your own windmills and rescue your own maidens whatever and wherever they might be.
Eat cake. drink ale, dance around a bit, preferably with bells on and pick some flowers .
Happy St. George’s Day to all.